17 April 2010

Sexism, Amy Pond, and the kindness of podcasters

UDATE: The podcast is up! My interview is first if you don't want spoilers for the newest episode.

Part one, in which I take podcasters in particular to task for the objectification of Amy Pond.

So, when Paul called me up (man, accents are hard to translate on cell phones!) he explained: "I don't know if this is true in the U.S., but in the U.K. most Doctor Who fans are gay." Which of course makes the whole conversation about Amy Pond take a different tone. A much more ironic tone, for example? So I do take back my ire at Paul, who is not an asshole, and a very friendly person.

We're all, by the way, lucky I didn't swear. It took concentration not to do that.

N.B.: Paul was asking me for solutions, and I was probably coming off a little vague. That's because 1) I am 23 and don't have all the feminist answers yet and 2) the privileging of male voices in DW fandom is part and parcel of (not separate from) Western patriarchy, and that's not exactly an easy problem to fix. It's complicated. I mentioned making fan spaces safer and more welcoming for women. Practical applications of that are a bit easier, things like not objectifying female characters in those spaces, calling out sexism in those spaces, supporting women when they do face sexism in those spaces. This is the job of individual female-friendly fans who occupy those spaces. This means not only moderating (i.e. deleting overtly violent or hateful misogyny, homophobia, racism, transphobia, etc.) but also just calling it out when it isn't ban-worthy. Tell people, for example, who post on the Gally forum that "girls don't get sci fi" that they are sexist assholes who can take their sexist assholery elsewhere. That might not make them leave, but if enough men (and women! Women can be complicit in this as well.) call it out, more women are going to feel like the forum is a safe space for them, a space where they don't have to face inevitable misogyny on their own, but are supported by their fellow fans. And because male voices are privileged in fan spaces (except in certain places, like Livejournal), it means that men who ARE those privileged voices need to make a concerted effort to include more diverse voices (not just women, but people of color, trans, genderqueer, etc.). They have to reach out and invite us into the conversation. Paul's contacting me is a great example of this. We're out here, talking about Doctor Who and what it means to us and what it's like to be ourselves in this community. You have to reach out, you have to make us feel welcome. Because otherwise, it's easy to assume that you're perfectly happy with the way it is, where every review episode of every DW podcast is a string of men talking to each other.

As for how to evaluate Amy, it IS possible to be sex-positive and not objectify her. For some interesting discussion on this, see the Feminism 101 thread on feminist porn. It's important to recognize the male gaze and subvert it. I do think we can talk about Amy Pond as a sexual character, as a character who is promiscuous, without objectifying her, without talking about her body as though it were public. We need to acknowledge not only how we look at her, but how the camera looks at her. This is not an easy conversation to have, and I have no pat answers or easy solutions. But as long as we're having a critical conversation about it, and are willing to take criticism and responsibility for the things that we say, we're on the right track. There's not exactly a whole lot of precedent for talking about sexual women in a way that doesn't 1) slut-shame or 2) objectify. Or even 3) both. So we have to make this conversation up as we go along, and that means screwing up every once in a while. It also means considering criticism of our discourse carefully and remembering all the while that real women and their bodies are at stake in that conversation.

Part of the reason that there seems to be a contradiction between allowing Amy to celebrate her own sexuality onscreen and not objectifying her is that we have screwed up definitions of women's sexuality. There is no contradiction once we define Amy sexuality by her own desires, not by the display and consumption of her body by heterosexual male viewers. When we allow "Amy reveling in her own sexuality" to be "Amy partaking of and enjoying her own desires," female sexuality is not spectacle, with all the power dynamics inherent in that model, but a model of autonomy and subjectivity, in which women articulate and fulfill their desires in whatever way makes them most happy. We need to stop defining sex by a heteronormative and patriarchal standard in order to resolve the contradiction between viewing Amy as (heteronormative) sex object and giving the character space to celebrate her sexuality.

Thanks, Paul, for inviting me on the show! It was lovely and I hope some good comes of it.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Courtney said...

Yay! Douchey comments!

I am implementing a new comment moderation policy. Post up soon.

Anonymous said...

How can a comment be douchey if you do not let it exist? You are standing up against people being different by disallowing people from being different?

Courtney said...

You've inspired comment moderation, Andrew!

I have many reasons for deleting your asshat comment. You can read them in my new post.

Draculasaurus said...

Hi Courtney, I just heard your comments on the Whocast.
I think you raise some valid and interesting points, but I think you might be making some unfair generalizations about Doctor Who podcasters.
I can think of about 10 female Doctor Who podcasters just off the top off my head, in fact the latest episode of "Bridging the Rift" is a rather positive discussion of female fandom.

You wrote "SO. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Enough for this to be surprising: there are no women on any of them. You read that right. NOT ONE.".

Here are some Doctor Who podcasts that do include women.
The Flashing Blade, Staggering Stories, The Oodcast, DirtyWhoers, Bridging the Rift, The Hitchhikers guide to the Whoverse.
It's actually a pretty diverse and open community.
check it out!

Best wishes
David- A.K.A. Draculasaurus

Courtney said...


I do know there are lady podcasters out there. My point was that the most-listened to (I'm basing this off iTunes, so that may not be ENTIRELY accurate) are all-dude.

I am hoping that once summer kicks in, I will have time to listen to more than four, and I have been considering adding Bridging the Rift for a while. That it has ladies on it makes me more enthusiastic about that time-sucking decision. I've also been casting my eye at Dirty Whoers, because they sound like my kind of ladies.

Thank you for the suggestions!

Unknown said...

Hi Courtney, here via Shakesville. Thanks for the awesome pair of posts, pointing this stuff out and calling the authors out on it never stops being worthwhile.

One thing in Paul's reply to you really bothered me.

...but in the U.K. most Doctor Who fans are gay.

Umm, not in my (British, Who-fan) experience. The show does have gay fans, of course, and yeah, it probably does have a bigger gay fanbase than average thanks to Russell T Davies' huge gay following from his time on Queer As Folk and the awesome treatment of gay themes within the show. But to say that "most" Who fans here are gay is just ridiculous.

Doctor Who is pretty much an institution over here, and one of the coolest things about it is that the fans come from all walks of life - kids, adults, black, white, gay, straight, hardcore nerds and people who would never normally watch scifi.

I just felt like I needed to point that out, cos it reads to me like Paul was bullshitting you, trying to avoid your (very justified) criticism of the podcast's sexism by covering it with stereotypes of sexuality instead. Which is, you know, not cool.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you are coming from. However, I did notice that you didn't seem to have a problem with Amy Pond staring lustily at the Doctor while he undressed to put on his new clothes in "The Eleventh Hour". To be fair, in this day and age, women are not the only ones who are being objectified. It is quite prevalent in the opposite direction as well.

Mike Deacon said...

Hi Courtney, I was delighted to hear your interview on the Whocast and just wanted to let you know. I was especially delighted to hear you representing Texas - I moved to Houston 2 years ago from Britain and I haven't got over the culture shock yet.

I heard the podcast for 5.2 and, although, I found the conversation about Amy briefly uncomfortable, I quickly forgot about it. Thank you for calling them out and thank you for reminding me that I should know better.

Yes, fandom seems to be shot through with endemic sexism, and the show's treatment of female companions has been far from acceptable, but on the other side, it has given generations of boys a male role-model that differs dramatically from the James Bond/Kirk norm. What it should do, and doesn't often enough, is allow plenty of opportunities for serious discussion of social issues like gender-relations.

Anyway, thanks again. So delighted to hear of a Doctor Who fan in Texas, but an atheist feminist Doctor Who fan is beyond my wildest dreams!

Cheers, Mike.

Courtney said...

@Natalie: I have to say, when he first said that, my bullshit meter went off. But I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think Paul was deliberately bullshitting me, but when it comes to sexism and the deployment of irony, intent and product are separable. I haven't been able to find any reliable studies about the makeup of DW fandom, but I haven't dug very hard either. Clearly, "DW is a gay show" isn't a universal understanding of the fan culture, though, if that rang false for you. I think this summer I'm going to do a little more research on DW and its fandom for an academic project, so I'll definitely talk about that here when I get to it.

Thanks for your input!

@Anonymous: I just wrote a whole 'nother post about this, because I think the concepts of objectification and the male gaze are not understood by most DW fans or geeks in general. It is about as feminism 101 as I will ever get, so enjoy!


@Mike: Hello! My goodness, Britain to Texas. That sounds immensely difficult. Especially since you didn't move somewhere awesome in TX, like Austin.

I do think that DW does A LOT of things right. But no matter how awesome a show is, it's important not to rest on our laurels. I think that was sort of my biggest point about the whole interview, so I'm glad that that got across.

Believe it or not, I am not the only feminist atheist DW fan in Texas! It's really easy to feel isolated in TX, because even while realizing the diversity of Texans, there's a real threat of violence (or even just not having any friends) if you aren't careful about the things you say and the views you air. But there are atheists and feminists and Doctor Who fans all over. I actually got invited to participate in a podcast project about DW fandom in the South as a result of this interview, which is really exciting, because I only have about four or five fellow DW fans in my acquaintance. We should set up a TX Doctor Who meet-up, though. That sounds like the best idea I've ever had.

Courtney said...

Re: Natalie's comment and my response.

I just wanted to clarify this: I don't think Paul was lying to me. He has really been nothing but nice, fair, and straight with me, which I have really appreciated more than he knows.

All I wanted to say in response to Natalie was: no, I don't think Paul was being deliberately deceitful in order to make my argument invalid. (If that were the case, he would have never invited me on the show, or if he had, he wouldn't have admitted I had a point.) But, since there seems to be little in the way of actual numbers when it comes to the distribution of DW fans, all we have is anecdotal evidence, which means that Paul's perception and Natalie's perception are both valid. But, Paul made the comments he did thinking that the majority of DW fandom is gay. While that wouldn't make them entirely unproblematic if he was wrong, intent does count for a lot here. And I sincerely believe that Paul's intentions were very, very far from how I interpreted them.

morecoffee said...

Hey Courtney! I just listened to the podcast and thought you did a terrific job representing the way fan groups sometimes inadvertently alienate women. I also think your outline of the difference between being sex-positive toward a female character and objectifying her was very clear. Nice work!